Against the picturesque backdrop of the Pacific Ocean on a clear, sunny day, a historic slice of sand, long a part of Santa Monica’s rich texture, was officially woven into the city’s historical fabric.
Approximately 100 people gathered at Bay Street and Ocean Front Walk in Santa Monica for the commemoration of a plaque that recognized the historic significance of what was once known as “Inkwell Beach,” a parcel of coastline that at one time was the lone setting on the Westside where African-Americans felt safe enough to openly engage in beach activities.
“This is part of our history, part of our making of history,” Mayor Herb Katz began. “This beach was here through the 1920s and even in the 1950s.”
Katz mentioned Rhonda Harper, an African-American surfer who is the chief executive officer of Ink Surf, a surf and clothing company, as one of the driving forces who had pushed city officials to honor the site.
“It is a dedication today due to the people who brought [the history of Inkwell Beach] to [the council],” said the mayor. “That’s why we’re here, and it’s an honor to be here.”
Nicholas Gabaldon, an African American surfer from generations past was mentioned frequently at the ceremony. Ac- cording to local surfing experts, Gabaldon, a Santa Monica High School graduate, was the first documented black surfer in Southern California.
“[The plaque] is a fabulous way for the public to become more aware of the many facets of the California experience,” said Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian at Historic Resources Group, a Hollywood-based consulting firm. “I want to commend the citizens of Santa Monica for your groundbreaking efforts to safeguard and to educate the public about the city’s history and cultural heritage.”
After speeches from city officials, the plaque was unveiled, commemorating the occasion.
There are still people who remember the days when African Americans were confined to segregated portions of the coast. Although racial restrictions were removed from California’s beaches in the late 1920s, Santa Monica’s black population that came to the coastal enclave at the turn of last century felt more comfortable at Inkwell because that is where they were less likely to be subjected to harassment or violence.
Gabaldon taught himself to surf off the coastline in Santa Monica, and according to legend, made a name for himself among the tight-knit clan of Westside surfers.
Gabaldon died in the 1950s in a surfing accident in Malibu.
Tony Corley, the founder of the Black Surfing Association of Southern California, said he was glad to hear that the area formerly known as Inkwell Beach had been recognized.
“For us as an association, this means recognition, dignity and honors for Nicholas Gabaldon and also the young black surfers who are coming up,” said Corley, who has been surfing for over 40 years. “It’s a beautiful piece of history.”
Laverne Ross remembers outings at Inkwell Beach. She moved with her family to Santa Monica during the 1950s, and says that many of her friends and family gathered at the beach on many occasions to celebrate birthdays, holidays and just to have fun.
“Although there were some sad times then, we always tried to make them as beautiful as possible,” Ross recalled.
Nathaniel Trives, known to many in the city as “Mr. Santa Monica” because of his long association with civic and political causes, was a frequent guest at the beach in the late 1940s and later in the 1950s as a Santa Monica High School student.
“Inkwell Beach was sort of an insider term that was used for that part of the beach,” said Trives, who remembered going to barbecues and picnics just south of where the plaque is now installed at the corner of Bay Street and Ocean Front Walk.
“I feel that this is a very positive step for the city. I had some good times here,” he remembered.
Deon Kamathi, president of the Southern California Black Surfing Association, who attended the Santa Monica ceremony, mentioned a similar celebration at another Southland beach that occurred recently.
“The [Santa Monica] event reminded me of what happened at Bruce’s Beach about five months ago,” he said.
Kamathi was referring to a two-block area of Manhattan Beach in the early 1900s that was one of the few Southland beaches that was not off-limits to African Americans. The Manhattan Beach City Council voted last year to rename the section Bruce’s Beach, after the beach’s founders, Charles and Willa Bruce, and to officially commemorate it in the city’s history.
Prior to renaming the stretch of coast Bruce’s Beach, it had been known as Parque Culiacan, or Culiacan Park.
Ross, who is the founder of the Santa Monica Juneteenth Celebration Committee, commended the city for recognizing Gabaldon’s legacy to surfing along with the beach’s historical significance.
“It’s very gratifying to see that they are honoring a piece of our history,” she said.
Trives, a former Santa Monica city councilman and mayor during the 1970s, was also happy that the often forgotten piece of history was honored, but he was equally pleased that the city chose not to ignore the past legacy of how minorities were treated in parts of the Los Angeles area.
“I’m happy that we were able to point out that there was discrimination and segregation,” he said. “It’s good that [city officials] honestly reflected the record the way that it was.”
Trives considers Gabaldon a pioneer of sorts in a similar vein to other black athletes who rose above their circumstances during a period of segregation.
“His efforts to become a surfer were like those of Arthur Ashe playing tennis or Althea Gibson playing golf in the 1960s,” the former councilman said.
Despite some of the unpleasant memories of the past, Ross, like many that day, is encouraged by the present and the future.
“Events like [the commemoration] make me proud to be an African American and proud to be a resident of Santa Monica,” she said.